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Civil rights violated?: Another reason you need a private investigator

by Craig Engstrom, Ph.D.*

Radley Balko, a senior editor for Reason, recently published an intriguing article. As he notes in the introduction to the article:

George Orwell famously said, ‘If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.’ He may still be right. But in today’s age of smart phones, Flip cams, and iPod cameras, there's a pretty good chance someone's going to capture that boot and the face it's smashing and post both to YouTube for all the world to see. Two recent incidents in Maryland illustrate the power of this new and increasingly democratized technology—and highlight just how important it is that the law protect the people who use technology to hold government agents accountable. (Balko, 2010, ¶ 1)

The first incident Balko describes, which will frame the advice given in this post, occurred recently at the University of Maryland. Following Maryland’s win over Duke, university students spilled into the streets to celebrate. In what appears to be an unprovoked confrontation, Jack McKenna, a Maryland student, was beat by three riot cops. With their iPhones, several bystanders captured to video this event and posted them to YouTube. Interestingly, the campus police initially stated that they could not provide footage from the campus security camera:

After the iPhone video of McKenna's beating emerged, investigators subpoenaed 60 hours of surveillance video from the College Park campus police. The only video police couldn't manage to locate was the one from the camera aimed squarely at the area where McKenna was beaten. Funny how that works. Campus police claimed that a "technical error" with that particular camera caused it to record over the footage of the beating. As public pressure mounted, police later found what they claimed was a recording of the lost video. But two minutes of that video were missing. Coincidentally, those two minutes happened to depict key portions of McKenna's beating. (Balko, 2010, ¶ 4)

While this incident (and the other incidents described in Balko’s article) highlights the usefulness of new technologies to speak truth to power, it raises two important questions: 1) What if bystanders had not been recording the incident and 2) what can one do immediately following these types of incidents? A possible recourse for victims, who feel that their civil rights have been violated in any type of situation, is to immediately retain a private investigator.

The immediate benefit of retaining a private investigator, even before an attorney in many circumstances, is that she or he can immediately begin an investigation. This will mitigate the potential that precious time will be lost. In these types of situations, it is critical to begin an investigation immediately, before evidence is lost (or destroyed) and witnesses forget details or are coached to question their initial impressions. In many states, any information that is obtained by a private investigator can later be submitted to the attorney as “notes to file,” meaning that it becomes part of the attorney’s work product and is, therefore, not discoverable. This will allow you to search for an attorney (the professional investigator will likely have several to recommend) or to file your claim with civil rights agencies without worrying about whether you’ll have a case. The private investigator will already be collecting data that will hopefully demonstrate that there is grounding for your claims. By having hired a licensed private investigator, evidence will be collected and processed in a legal manner, consistent with court admissibility. You will also have a central person to whom you can direct all people who approach you about the incident.

The investigator may also uncover witness video recordings that, for whatever reason, did not make their way to YouTube or other social media websites. This is, of course, the best evidence to have. But even if no video is obtainable, the investigator will be able to follow leads and conduct interviews with witnesses in order to collect accounts of the events. He or she may even be able to uncover details that may be purposefully or accidentally omitted in police reports. Whatever he or she can collect becomes important data that can be used to help in your defense (should you be charged with a crime) or civil proceedings (should you choose to file a suit). If, for whatever reason, there are no witnesses present during an incident where you feel a government has violated your rights, you may still benefit from an investigator. You can file your complaint to the appropriate authorities, and the private investigator can conduct an investigation into other complaints filed against the particular agent(s). By interviewing other complainants, employees, and other individuals who are knowledge about the agents or departments, an investigator may discover a pattern that could prove some negligence.

Private investigators are important ballasts to their public counterparts. While hiring a private investigator is often a great investment, it is important to remember that you or your family should vet private detectives before hiring them. You should ask the private investigator several questions, including whether she or he can conduct an objective investigation into potential police misconduct. While some private investigators are former police officers, many of them are not. Nevertheless, you should not exclude a private investigator solely on the basis of his or her prior or current connection with a particular police department. Hiring a private investigator with prior police experience can be an asset for many reasons. In other words, the particulars regarding where an investigator received his or her training and experience is not as important as what type of knowledge and experience she or he has. What matters more than anything, and something that you will be able to tell during your initial conversations, is whether the private investigator seems interested in your case and has the expertise to conduct a competent investigation. Not every investigative agency is interested in or equipped to handle these types of investigations. You should ask the investigator to explain to you what she or he will do to assist you. If something doesn’t sound right to you, it may not be. Before hiring any investigator, you should also check his or her reviews on websites such as,, or the local Better Business Bureau.

It’s unfortunate that many citizens have to rely on technology and private investigators to protect themselves from government and corporate misconduct. However, by relying on both technology and quality private investigators, you can better protect yourself against injustices perpetrated by others against you.

* Dr. Craig Engstrom is owner and operator of Critical Hours, a company that provides consulting, research, and documentation services to small business owners. His scholarly research focuses on the business of private, professional investigations.


Balko, R. (2010, April 26). Watching the detectives: A nebulous "right" to videotape on-duty cops isn't enough. The right needs to be enforced. Reason Magazine. Retrieved April 27, 2010 from>